Review/First Impressions: REI Quarter Dome SL2 backpacking tent

Full photo gallery of the tent in various setups

After my recent bike packing trip, I decided that I wanted to invest in a light weight backpacking tent. The one I used for bike packing was 5.2lbs, and I knew I could do better. It’s fortuitous that right before the trip I received an email from REI about their big Labor Day sale. Never wanting to pass up giving money to outdoor equipment stores, I did a bunch of research and decided to take the plunge on the REI Quarter Dome SL2. Thanks to the sale I managed to pay $244+tax, plus another $38 for the footprint.

It didn’t take a completely straight path though, as I first decided to try out the SL1 (1-person) version. However, when I got it home and set it up in the living room, I realized that it was far smaller than I was comfortable with, so I brought it back and got the SL2.

It’s worth noting that the SL series is different than the Quarter Dome series from a couple of years ago. Many of the YouTube videos I watched were reviewing the older model of tent, which is significantly different than the SL line. The older model was a free-standing tent, whereas the current SL is a semi-freestanding shelter. Additionally, the non-SL models were slightly bigger than the current editions, but also heavier. I’ll mention these changes as we move through the review, but the suffice it to say, make sure you’re reading the correct reviews for the tent you’re looking for.

Once I had procured the SL2 version of the tent I set it up and gave it a quick test on the living room floor. It seemed to be what I was looking for, so I told my wife, “Hey, let’s find a campsite for a night and try it out.” So on a Sunday evening before Labor Day my wife, myself, and our friend Mike, all gathered at a campsite at Afton State Park for a night under the stars.

We all brought our own tents, in order for me to properly test out the Quarter Dome SL2 as a solo use tent. I wanted to see how it felt with just one person, plus their gear. It was a little weird, and funny, to have my wife bringing her backpacking tent as well, but honestly, it was kinda nice that both of us were able to spread out a bit more. We’ve both slept in her Big Agnes Blacktail 2 tent before, and it’s fine, but even though it’s heavier, the floor space is pretty similar.

Setup

The REI Quarter Dome SL2 uses a set of poles that are all connected through a central spoke. You simply unfold all of the sticks and you’re ready to go. When assembled, the pole setup resembles a triangle with two supports for the head of the tent, and one at the foot. Everything is color coded, so figuring out which pole goes where is simple.

Because there are only three pole connection points, this tent is considered semi-freestanding. What that means is that the foot of the tent only has one pole supporting it. You then extend the corners on to the stakes for the full width at the foot of the tent. Although having four supported corners would have been nice, I understand why REI changed this design from the previous version, as it required another spoke and more pole, which increased the weight.

You have a choice of setting up two ways; either as a tent with (or without) the fly, or as a fly/footprint tarp setup. No matter which way you choose, the setup of the poles is the same, as they provide the primary support and structure to both the tent and the fly. There is a link to a gallery of photos of all the different setups at the end of this post.

Once you’ve constructed the poles, you insert the ends into the grommets, and simply hook the tent to the poles with the attached hooks. It’s dead simple, and within seconds, the tent takes shape. Once the tent is secured to the poles, staking out the foot of the tent completes the overall shape and structure. There are then multiple stake points that you can use to secure everything firmly to the ground. The stake bag also contains multiple guy lines for setting up the tent in windy conditions.

Attaching the fly involves putting it over the poles, securing with velcro, and then connecting the bottom to the appropriate buckles. These snap-in buckles also can be loosened or tightened to make sure your fly is secured appropriately. The fly needs to be staked out on the sides to complete the dual vestibules. Having two vestibules is another advantage of the SL2 vs. the SL1.

One thing to note, the footprint is sold separately, but I was happy I got it. Having the connection points already placed where they should be, made everything easier when staking the tent down. The footprint has cords for all the relevant staking points, so you can ensure that it doesn’t get bunched up under the tent.

Features

Once the tent is set up, you’re ready to tuck in and start using it. Since this is a backpacking tent, weight is at a premium. That means that you’re not going to find a lot of bells and whistles on the interior. Despite this, there are quite a few nice touches provided.

There are four pockets in the mesh, two on the top of the tent, and two on each side at the head of the bathtub. The ones near the head of the bathtub are really big, and I was able to fit my phone and charger in them with no issue. It’s also a great place to store a headlamp for easy access at night.

There are also a couple of loops on the top of the mesh that you can use to hang things, such as a small light. However, this is a very lightweight tent, and the material is not meant to withstand a heavy load. I felt OK using my inflatable solar light, but I wouldn’t do anything much heavier than a few ounces.

That’s about it for the features inside the tent. Once you move to the outside there are dual doors and vestibules for gear/shoe storage. One complaint I have is how high the vestibule is off the ground. The gap at the bottom feels like it could let in a lot of water splash if it was raining hard. Of all the weight saving design choices, I wish this one had gone in favor of just a bit lower extension on the vestibule material. I haven’t had to use this in the rain, so it might not be a big deal, but it’s something to be aware of.

The overall size of the tent is perfect for one person. At 88 x 52/42 (head/foot) I had tons of space to spread out, and since I’m only 5’8” there was plenty of room for all my gear at the foot of the tent. Two people can fit as well, but at that point you’re dependent on the vestibule for gear storage. There is not really an option for storage inside, in addition to two people. However, a furry friend might work just fine, depending on their size.

One final feature to mention is a roof vent on the fly. Even just one vent helps to bring in more airflow to the interior. In the previous version of the tent, there was a zipper to allow access to open/close the vent from inside. However, that feature was removed in the SL change.

Quality

I’m not a tent expert, so take my opinions on quality as just my opinions. However, when comparing this tent to our other, heavier, backpacking tent (Big Agnes Blacktail 2), this tent feels like it compares favorably. The seams appear to be sealed nicely, and the overall feel of the material appears to be strong. When I first stretched out the fly, I needed to put some oomph into it to get it where I wanted it. However, it didn’t feel like I was ever in danger of ripping or tearing any part of it. Once I had it set up for an hour the fabric stretched a little bit and everything felt good.

The zippers are fine. Nothing notable about them; they seem to work as intended. I didn’t get any snags when getting in or out of the tent, however, you do need to use a little bit of caution at the top end of the door zipper. The zipper on the door angles downward slightly right when you get to the end of it on the top. When trying to unzip, you need to go slowly for a moment, and pull upwards to get over this curve. It’s hard to explain, but when you feel it, you’ll understand what I’m getting at. Not huge issue, just a little odd.

The stakes provided are really nice v-stakes, and have cords attached to them for easy removal. They all come with reflective material sown into the cords (all the cords on the entire tent actually), which makes them easy to see in a headlamp. A really nice little touch.

Finally, the poles are actually really nice. I appreciate the fact that the longest of the poles has a double cord running through it for added strength. Although light weight, I never felt like these poles were fragile, and in fact they felt stronger than most of the cheap car camping tent poles I’ve used in the past. In this area, REI did a great job.

Conclusion

Let’s start with what I like about this tent.

  • The weight is awesome at just under 3lbs with the footprint.
  • The material feels light, but durable (ripstop nylon).
  • Setup is simple, despite needing stakes to fully stand it up.
  • Just enough pockets to be useful.
  • Dual doors and vestibules.
  • Good poles and stakes.
  • Price.

Now, let’s take a look at my disappointments list.

  • Vestibule is high off the ground.
  • Not fully freestanding
  • Door zipper is a little odd.

Buying this tent on sale for $244 makes it a no-brainer as a good deal. Even needing to purchase the footprint separately isn’t that bad (it was also on sale) when you consider that most backpacking tents in this class start over $400. However, let’s put price aside and ask if this tent is a good tent?

Based on setting it up a couple times, and using it for a trip, I would say yes, this is a good backpacking tent. The weight is nice, the material feels solid, and the setup and design isn’t overly complex. The fact that it isn’t fully freestanding doesn’t bother me, as I’m always going to be staking my tent down anyway. The staking pattern makes sense, and two small stakes to get the full shape isn’t really a big deal.

There are a couple small design choices that I don’t like, such as the door zipper shape and the vestibule height, but I can live with those. Although I wanted to set price aside, it’s really hard to not consider it. The competition for this tent are things like the Big Agnes Copper Spur ($450) and Nemo Dagger ($430). Even at full price for the Quarter Dome SL 2 ($350), it still packs a tremendous value.

Obviously, time will tell how this tent holds up. I’m hoping to come back in a year or so and see if this tent is still meeting all my expectations. From everything I’ve seen and experienced so far, I’m happy with this tent, and I think most casual backpackers will be too. It does what it’s advertised to do, and was a comfortable shelter for sleeping outside. Although the sale is done now, it’s worth adding this to your list of tents for consideration.

Now, it’s time for me to start thinking about more adventures to really put this tent through its paces.

Full photo gallery of the tent in various setups

Porcupine Mountains, Night 4

As my wife and I waited at the Buckshot Cabin, we started to hear the telltale sound of thunder again. I walked over to the lake and saw that there were some small thunderheads moving in from the lake. Nothing too terrible, but we were concerned that Mike was going to get soaked again.

Thankfully, the rain didn’t last long, and for Lisa and I, the cabin was a beautiful place to wait it out. There wasn’t any wind, so we were able to keep the windows open and enjoy the smell of fresh rain in the woods. Soon the rain let up and we started checking out what time it was. It was then that we realized that Mike should be back any time now, but we weren’t seeing any sign of him. I realized that we never made any plans for how to handle an emergency, without any cell phone connection, so I made the decision that if Mike wasn’t back by 7pm we would pack up the cabin and hike back out to the car. The assumption was that if something had gone wrong and he wasn’t able to hike down after his run, he’d just wait in the car.

Soon enough though he came down the trail, ready for some supper. He had managed to get back to the car just as the rain started, so he decided (wisely) to just wait out the rain before heading out on the hike. After almost 18 miles of running, and a 2.5 mile hike to the cabin, he was justifiably wiped. We started up a dinner of pancakes and sat down at the table to enjoy one final camp meal. I enjoyed a beer while we ate, and then headed to bed to finish my second book of the trip.

Morning came, and I was awake early (as usual). I headed down to the lake to get a nice sunrise pic (in the header above), and then we started our packing for the trip home. Maybe it was a bit of caffeine in my system, but the hike out to the car went super smooth, and I was feeling on top of the world. We managed to hike UP the hill 12 minutes faster than it took Lisa and I to hike down. We arrived at the car and drove back to the modern campground for a quick shower before the long ride home.

IMG_20180806_090941.jpgI feel like I learned a LOT on this trip. Mike was an excellent guide, and taught us solid Leave No Trace principles. I also learned about what I like and don’t like, and how I’d plan the next trip that we take.

Some of the lessons:

  • ALWAYS pack for rain. It doesn’t matter what the weather forecast said two days ago. Always bring your pack cover.
  • I know how to poop in the woods now.
  • Packing gear for both back country camping and running is tough. Many things are shared, but when you’re running long distances in the woods, you need the right gear.
  • There’s a lot you can do for food beyond just dehydrated camp meals.
  • You don’t need as much as you think you do, and you can get by with a lot less.

Overall, this was an amazing adventure. It wasn’t much like a vacation, because we were working hard a lot. But, it was something incredible and memorable. I commented to our group that it felt like running an ultramarathon. It was tough and difficult, but incredibly fulfilling. I just needed a few days to recover when I got done!

I’m not sure what the next back country trip for us will be. We’ve got some camper trips coming up soon, but at least we have all the right gear for when we want to venture out again. I’ll be posting some reviews of our gear in future blogs, as well as a list of all the things we brought. I’m very happy with almost all of our gear, and frankly, I don’t think we need to change much.

This was an incredible adventure, and I’m so happy that we did it. It’s OK that it was tough, because the memories will last for a lifetime.

Porcupine Mountains, Night 3

We awoke on day 3 to the sound of light rain. In reality the rain had pretty much stopped at that point, but the tree canopy was continuing to drip water on us from its water laden leaves. We had decided, the night before, to start our hike early and then eat a later breakfast when we got to the other side. We grabbed some snacks to tie us over, and then started packing up. Unfortunately, I forgot my pack rain cover in the car, so we arranged our things so that anything that could get wet was in my bag.

As we headed out the rain stopped, and we thought that perhaps we’d be spared a completely wet hike. However, I managed to catch a sliver of cell signal and the weather report informed us that more rain was on it’s way. All of the water overnight had made the trail much more muddy and soft than the day before, so the hike became a bit more of a slog. The gullies that we had to cross were slick and difficult to climb out of, but we managed to get through it. A few spots were showing signs of pretty bad erosion, and hopefully the park can take care of that sooner rather than later. I doubt parts of this trail will be usable in the near future if they don’t do something about the washouts.

One of the most memorable parts of our hike was a couple of miles in. Right before the rain started to pour again, we heard a cracking sound. I looked to my right and saw a tree starting to sway. I pointed and yelled to everyone to “Look out!” We jumped off the trail as the tree fell about 20-30 yards from us. Thankfully, it fell towards the direction we had just come from, and we weren’t really in any danger. However, it certainly got our blood pumping, and kept us on high alert for any cracking sounds for the rest of the hike.

The hike took around 3 hours, and when we arrived the rain and finished. Our original plan had been to wander around some of the waterfalls on that end of the park, but all we wanted to do was get somewhere to eat and dry out our things. We opt’d for a picnic shelter nearby and spent some time getting ourselves repacked and organized. Unfortunately, I believe that this was the time when I forgot my running hat on a picnic bench, and it got left behind.

The next night was our planned night of comfort. We had a reservation at a yurt near the modern campground. This meant that we got a nice shower, and could dry things out. We brought Mike to the Lake of the Clouds overlook so that he could start his next long run, and we got to look around at this amazing site.

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Mike headed out his run, and my wife and I started to do a short run of our own. However, part way through the run I felt my stomach turn south, and so I headed back to find a bathroom. I’m not sure what hit me, but for most of the rest of the evening my stomach was not feeling good, and I ended up not even eating much in the way of supper. It might have been some exhaustion, or a slight bug of some kind, but either way, it made me glad we had a more comfortable bed for this night.

I managed to sleep pretty well that night, and the next morning my wife treated us to a wonderful eggs and potato breakfast. Mike’s plan for this day was to run close to 20 miles and then meet us at our final site, a remote cabin in the woods, right on the shore of Lake Superior. We dropped Mike off at his starting run location, and then my wife and I headed back for a run of our own. With my stomach I decided to stick to a simple run along the roads, and banged out a 6 miler before cleaning up and packing up the yurt.

Since we had some time to kill before we could begin our hike we headed into a nearby town and got a decent lunch at a small restaurant at a hotel. Because of the way that the time zones work out, the park is split by eastern and central time. That meant that we were checking out of the yurt, but had to kill some time because the cabin was in central time. A meal we didn’t have to cook sounded good to us, so we took advantage of it.

IMG_20180805_150421.jpgOnce we were done with lunch we parked the car at the final trailhead of the trip and began a 2.5 mile hike down to the lakeshore. This part of the Lake Superior Trail was rocky, and it took us some time to work around all the loose rubble. We weren’t in a rush though, and we took advantage of that fact to simply enjoy ourselves. We arrived at the cabin, mid-afternoon, and settled in. This was a beautiful, rustic, cabin right near the shore, and it was the perfect place to simply relax. We unpacked our gear and fell into our cots to read.

img_3232Eventually, Mike showed up, but that’s the story for next time…

Porcupines Mountains, Night 1 & 2

I’ve been off the grid a bit this past week/weekend, engaging in our first back country camping trip. I had done one night on the Superior Hiking Trail, almost 2 decades ago, but otherwise have stuck with car/camper camping since then. We were excited to try out a bunch of new gear that we had gotten, including some new packs, and my wife’s new backpacking tent.

For this trip, we were joined by our good friend Mike B. who is a very experienced back country person, and he served as our mentor and guide throughout the trip. Part of the impetus for the trip was so that Mike could get in some solid trail training runs before his 100 mile attempt at Fall Superior in a few weeks. We were more than happy to join him and help with his training, while at the same time getting some wilderness experience.

We headed out on a Thursday, and our itinerary involved getting all the way to Michigan, and then heading to our first campsite. This first night we would only be hiking in 2.5 miles, and since we had been driving all day, this was fine with us. Our first site was on the banks of the Little Carp River, and the trail leading to it followed along side of it. We arrived by late afternoon, and found a good spot to pitch our tents. We had some neighbors, who I don’t think really liked the company, but such is life in a busy park. In fact, Mike discovered when he was planning this trip, that even the back country sites needed to be reserved now. Our experience bore out this reality, that this park is getting very popular.

img_3175Once we had set up camp, we started dinner and enjoyed a nice meal of couscous and chicken. I got to try out our new Sawyer gravity water system (review coming another day), and overall we had a quiet night in the woods. Because of the drive and the hike we were all tired, and we crawled in to bed pretty early. Much to our surprise we all ended up in our tents for close to 12 hours, giving us a bit later of a start to our second day.

Our goal for day 2 was to get to our next campsite, and then Mike and I planned to run back to our car to move it to a new spot for our hike out. The hike to the next site, where the Little Carp River runs in to Lake Superior, was easy and uneventful. There were some cool water features, and we stopped to take a few pictures as we went. Overall, it was a pretty easy morning, and we had our new site set up before lunch.

Mike and I headed out to do a 6.5 mile run back to the car along the Crosscut Trail and got to have some fun stretching our legs without any packs on. The Crosscut Trail is an interior trail, and frankly, just not that interesting. It’s muddy and just cuts through some basic woods, without much in the way of features. It was still a good run, and we made decent time getting back to the parking lot. Once we arrived we hopped in the car and moved it over to Presque Isle, heading back to our campsite via the Lake Superior Trail.

img_3213This trail was much different than Crosscut, as it ran closer to the lake, and was punctuated by large gullies that we needed to climb down and up. I think in total, I counted 10 or 11 gullies along the way. It was all good fun until I realized we’d be coming back that way the next day and would have to do them all over again.

For the time being, I put that out of my mind, and we enjoyed a beautiful evening near the shore of Lake Superior. We had a nice supper and spent time walking down to the lakeshore to enjoy the view. Soon though it started to get dark, and we heard the sound of thunder in the distance. It was time to hunker down in the tent, and get some sleep while we enjoyed the sound of rain all around us. Never mind the fact that the next day was shaping up to be rather wet, it was still shaping up to be a fun adventure.

In the next entry we’ll continue with the story of the wet hike out of the woods…